Posts Tagged ‘horses’

Juneau’s Farm

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Waiting For the Moment

Waiting For the Moment painting by Nolan Winkler

Two years ago, at the age of forty, Frederick Scott divorced his wife of seventeen years, gave up his life as an electrician in San Jose, California, and moved to Sedona, Arizona to become a follower of Sri Bihar, formerly known as Joshua Steinberg from Brooklyn.

When he arrived in Sedona, Frederick was pudgy and wan and suffering from indigestion and insomnia and depression. Now, after seventeen months of working twelve hours every day in Sri Bihar’s garden and kitchen in exchange for room and board and the honor of serving the guru and his seven anointed disciples, Frederick is lean and strong and healthy, no longer depressed, and sleeps well every night.

And Frederick might still be serving Sri Bihar in Sedona had he not, just a few weeks ago, and purely by accident, overheard his guru speaking on the phone to someone.

Having risen an hour before dawn to work for three hours in the ashram kitchen preparing breakfast for fifty sojourners—as those who make the pilgrimage to Sri Bihar are called—and weary from a subsequent two hours of washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, Frederick decided to spend his twenty minutes before reporting for lunch duty by taking a nap in the bamboo grove on the banks of Madan Creek.

The day warm, the creek in late summer little more than a melodious trickle, Frederick unfurled his prayer rug, set the alarm on his wristwatch for fifteen minutes, and lay down for a snooze. However, immediately upon lying down he heard footsteps on the dry bamboo leaves, and before he could reveal himself, he heard the unmistakable Brooklyn-accented voice of Sri Bihar saying, “So while I’m banging these beautiful women who come to worship me, I’ve convinced the men here to remain celibate so…wait for it…their inner feminine can blossom.” Then he cackled, did Sri Bihar. “I kid you not, Murray. These schmucks would put their heads up their butts if I told them to.”

Ten minutes later, Fredrick packed his knapsack with his few possessions, and hitchhiked from Sedona to Boulder, Colorado, where, in a state of shock, he stayed with his friend Rico and Rico’s wife Carla for three weeks before announcing to them one morning, “Yes, Sri Bihar is a charlatan, but I don’t regret my time with him. Those seventeen months got me over the mess of my previous life and now I’m prepared to carry on. I’m so grateful to you for letting me stay with you. I’ve decided to hitchhike to Nova Scotia and take a boat from there to England. I’ll send you postcards along the way.”

One hundred and thirty miles east of Boulder, in the town of Sterling, Fredrick has breakfast in a café called Paladin’s. On the café bulletin board, he sees a handwritten notice: Fulltime farmhand needed. Room and board and $600 a month. Call Juneau. 777-2297

In need of money, Frederick borrows the café phone and calls Juneau.

A woman with a husky voice answers on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hi,” says Frederick, guessing from her hello that she is sad. “Is this Juneau?”

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Who’s this?”

“My name is Frederick Scott. I’m calling regarding your notice here in Paladin’s. Are you still looking for a farmhand?”

“Yes, I am,” she says, her manner becoming more business-like. “How old are you?”

“Forty-two,” he says, smiling at the waitress who allowed him to use the phone. “I’m accustomed to long hours of gardening and kitchen work. I’m in good health, I don’t smoke, and I’m quiet.”

“You local?” she asks, her tone implying she doesn’t think he is. “You sound a little British.”

“I am a little British,” he says, laughing. “And I’m not local. I was just in Boulder for a few weeks, and before that Sedona for seventeen months, and before that San Jose, California for eighteen years, and long before that I was born in England where I lived until I was eleven.”

“Can I meet you at Paladin’s?” she asks, sounding intrigued. “I’ve got some errands to run in town. I can be there in about forty minutes.”

“I’ll be here,” he says, cheerfully. “I’ll make a sign that says Frederick.”

“Can’t wait to see that,” she says with a touch of sarcasm.

Frederick is sitting at a table in Paladin’s enjoying a latte while he writes a postcard to Rico and Carla. On the table in front of him, a sheet of paper stands upright against a glass of water, the name FREDERICK written on the paper in large capital letters and aimed at the front door.

A woman enters the café, her eyes hidden by dark glasses. Sturdy and broad-shouldered, her brown hair in a ponytail, she moves with the strength and surety of an athlete. Frederick guesses she is in her mid-thirties until she takes off her dark glasses and his guess changes to mid-forties. She sees his FREDERICK sign and smiles, and he revises his guess to late thirties.

He gets up from the table as she approaches, they shake hands, and her grip informs him of her formidable strength.

“I like your sign,” she says, sitting down and looking away from him. “Just so we don’t waste each other’s time, I’ll tell you right now I need somebody for at least six months. So if you’re just passing through, this won’t work for me.”

“I understand,” says Frederick, nodding amiably. “And to be quite honest with you, Juneau, I do hope to eventually get to Nova Scotia, but I’m in no hurry, and if I like the job and the accommodations, I will gladly stay for six months.”

“I grow greenhouse vegetables year-round,” she says, opening a small notebook to consult a list she’s made. “In three really big greenhouses. I sell to local restaurants and the college and high school cafeterias. I grow about an acre of outdoor vegetables spring to fall, and two acres of potatoes. I have a hundred chickens for their eggs and raise twelve pigs a year, eleven for other people and one for me. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the main things I need help with. I also have two big dogs and two horses, and I usually board a few more horses over the winter. Oh, and I raise rabbits for their meat and pelts. I lease thirty acres to a farmer who grows alfalfa and I get a third of the bales.”

“And you and one farmhand do all the work?” asks Frederick, enjoying Juneau’s growly voice.

“Most of it. I hire high school kids when we get crazy busy in the summer, but I wouldn’t make any money if I had more than one person working full-time for me.” Now she glances at him and quickly looks away. “You interested?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding. “So far.”

“You go by Fred or Frederick?”

“Whatever you like.” He smiles. “Where does your one farmhand sleep?”

“You have your own cottage,” she says, waving to the waitress for coffee. “Has a bedroom and a little living room with a woodstove. Cozy. You take your meals with me. My last employee left three weeks ago. She was with me for two years, but she needed to make more money. It’s hard work and winters here aren’t easy, so…”

“Days off?” asks Frederick, warming to the idea of working for her.

“I try for easy Saturdays and Sundays,” she says, nodding her thanks as the waitress serves her coffee. “But chickens and horses and rabbits and pigs and vegetables don’t take days off. That’s why I pay the big bucks.” She laughs drily. “That was a joke in case you didn’t get it.”

“I got it,” he says, liking her more and more. “May I visit your farm to see what I think?”

She sips her coffee and muses for a moment. “Yeah. I have to go to the feed store and make a delivery to the college, and then you can follow me out.”

“I don’t have a car,” he says simply. “Or a truck. Or even a bicycle, though I intend to get one. A bicycle.”

“That’s a shocker,” she says, taken aback. “I’m ten minutes out going sixty. You’ll need a car.”

“For what?” he asks, sensing the job slipping away.

“You think I’m gonna lend you my car?” she says, incredulously. “Take the pickup any time you want?”

“I misunderstood,” he says, his tone apologetic. “I thought I’d be living where the job was and wouldn’t need a car. I do have a driver’s license if you needed me to drive, but…”

“I’m sorry,” she says, softening. “I guess it could work. I just…I’ve never known anybody over eighteen who didn’t have a car, so…but, yeah, I’ll take you out there.”

Juneau’s farm is spectacular, seventy acres of mostly level ground transected by a year-round stream flanked by aspens and alders—the old farmhouse and barn in excellent condition, the farmhand’s cottage delightful, the big farm dogs friendly. After a quick tour of the greenhouses and garden and barn, Juneau goes to make some phone calls while Frederick wields a hoe and weeds rows of broccoli and kale and chard.

He works steadily for two hours, stopping briefly a few times to drink water, and as he works he thinks about a woman he was smitten with in Sedona, Esther, a woman he would have courted had not Sri Bihar commanded him to remain celibate.

“Hey Frederick,” says Juneau, calling from the farmhouse porch. “Come have lunch.”

In the cheerful kitchen, enjoying their meal of sautéed vegetables and brown rice and spicy black beans, Juneau says, “My sister Janet and her husband Joe live in the other house on the property. The one we passed coming in from the highway. She teaches Biology at the college in town and he works at the lumberyard. I have a son in college in New Mexico. Kyle. He’s twenty. He comes home for Christmas and part of summer. I coach the Girls basketball team at the high school. I went to Western Washington University on a basketball scholarship. Got my degree in Horticulture. I go out with my girlfriends on Friday or Saturday night. I’m divorced and I’m not involved with anybody right now.” She takes a deep breath. “So that’s me. What about you?”

“Well…” says Frederick, sitting back in his chair, “first let me say you’re a wonderful cook.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “Glad you liked it because I make this sort of thing a lot.”

“Good,” he says, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “So…there I was in San Jose, a successful electrician, living with my real estate agent wife in our three-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood, two new cars, my big electrician’s van, no children, and feeling mostly okay about my life, but also a bit…disconnected from…I didn’t know what.”

“Why’d you stop being an electrician?” she asks, frowning. “They make real good money.”

“Yes, they do, but…” He smiles to keep from crying. “I found out my wife was involved with somebody else, and in the course of our rather contentious divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she had borrowed a great deal of money on our house, and so when all was said and done I had almost nothing. And concurrent with finding myself penniless, I found it impossible to concentrate as one must concentrate in order to be a good electrician, so I quit. And then after a few months of floundering around, I went to Sedona and worked in the garden and kitchen of the ashram of a man called Sri Bihar, a guy from Brooklyn masquerading as a holy man.” He chuckles at this brief summation of his life. “And now I’m here with you.”

“Wow,” says Juneau, nodding thoughtfully. “You want the job?”

“Well…” He frowns at his water glass. “How would you feel about me working for you for a few weeks before I make my decision?”

“Not great, but…” She looks out the window. “Are you leaning toward taking the job?”

“Juneau?” he says, waiting for her to look at him before saying what he wants to say. “I like you and your farm and the cottage and the work, but I need to see how this feels from day to day for a while. So if you need a firm commitment right away, I’ll have to forego the job. But I very much appreciate your considering me.”

“I watched you work,” she says, looking out the window again. “You have a good pace, and you’re careful. You seem like a good person. So…is two weeks long enough to decide? I really need to get somebody before winter sets in.”

“Yes,” he says, relieved. “Two weeks is enough.”

At the end of supper on Frederick’s ninth day on Juneau’s farm, a Friday, Juneau glances at him and says, “I was driving back from town today and realized…you never asked me how old I am.”

“My grandfather taught me never to ask a woman her age,” says Frederick, setting down his fork, his huge helping of mashed potatoes and chicken and salad devoured. “And I did ask you to tell me the story of your life, twice, and you didn’t seem to want to, so I thought I’d better not pry.”

“Takes me a while to trust people,” she says, clearing her throat. “My mother…” She shrugs. “You want to have a little wine? Sit by the fire?”

“Sure,” he says, exhausted from the long day of work. “I must warn you, though. I might fall asleep. Almost my bedtime.”

“We won’t work so hard tomorrow,” she says, getting up from the table. “You like red or white?”

“Red,” he says, loving how strong and supple she is. “But either is fine.”

She opens a bottle of red, fills two big goblets, and carries them into the living room where she sets them on a small table between two armchairs. Now she tosses a log on the faltering fire and says, “We can do the dishes later. Come on now, Frederick. I want to talk to you.”

“I’ll only drink a little,” he says, sitting in one of the armchairs. “I’m a cheap date. Half a glass and I’ll be drunk.”

“I can drink,” she says, sitting in the other chair. “I don’t like how I feel the next day, but now and again I’ll get so drunk I can’t remember ever being sad.” She takes a long luxurious drink. “I like this wine. Not too sweet, but not even a little bit sour. I don’t like that vinegar sour.”

“I like this wine, too,” he says, having a sip. “My grandfather was a wine snob and spent a fortune on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.”

They drink for a while and watch the fire grow large again.

Her goblet empty, Juneau gets up and goes into the kitchen for a refill, and while she’s there she opens the back door and in come the two big dogs, Poobah and Cocoa.

“My grandmother wanted to be an actress,” says Juneau, sitting cross-legged in her armchair, swirling the wine in her goblet. “She grew up in Spokane and was in high school plays and went to the University of Washington and majored in Drama. And then she went to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies, and after a couple hard years in LA she met my grandfather. He was just getting out of the Army and fell madly in love with her and they got married and came back to Sterling where Grandpa was born. They rented a little house in town and she taught Drama at the high school and he worked on a big ranch west of town, and then they bought this place and had my mother.”

“Did they have any other kids?” asks Frederick, smiling as Poobah lies down near the fire and rolls onto his back.

“No, just my mom.” Juneau closes her eyes. “She was so beautiful, at least how I remember her. She wanted to be an actress, too, only she didn’t go to college. She didn’t even finish high school. Ran away when she was sixteen and somehow got to LA. She was in a few commercials and was an extra in one of those Superman movies, and when she was nineteen she had Janet and two years later she had me, and when she was twenty-six she brought us back here and left us with Grandma and Grandpa and we never saw her again, though she called a few times to ask for money. She died when I was eleven. Not sure how, but Grandma thought it was something to do with drugs.”

“So you were raised by your grandparents,” says Frederick, reverently. “So was I.”

“Seriously?” says Juneau, opening her eyes and gazing at him.

“Yeah, my grandfather was a professor of History at Stanford, his specialty the English Renaissance, and after my parents were killed in a car accident in Tottenham when I was eleven, I moved from England to California to live with my grandfather, my mother’s father, and his second wife. I lived with them until I graduated from college. San Jose State. Physics.”

“So is that why you want to go back to England?” she asks, her eyes full of tears. “Get in touch with your roots?”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But I interrupted your story. Sorry. Go on.”

“It’s okay,” she says, setting down her empty glass. “We’re just talking.”

“Right,” he says, relaxing. “So you were only five when your mother brought you here.”

“Yeah,” she says, feeling nicely drunk. “I hardly remember anything from before then. Just little bits. But I remember everything after we got here, taking care of the animals, working in the kitchen with Grandma, sitting on Grandpa’s lap driving the tractor, going to school in town and playing basketball and volleyball and getting scholarships. Janet played volleyball at Oregon State and I played basketball at Western Washington. And then Janet got a high school teaching job in Portland, and when I graduated I moved in with her and got a job at a bio-tech company and we were having a good time living in the city, so different than here, so much to do, but then my grandfather died and we came home to be with Grandma and never left. We just couldn’t leave her. She died seven years ago. We both married local guys. Janet got a good one and I got a wife beater.”

“Oh Juneau, I’m sorry,” he says, bowing his head. “So sorry.”

“My fault,” she says, nodding. “I was a stupid party girl and got pregnant, and even that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t made him marry me. I should have just let him go. He went soon enough, but not before he beat me senseless a few times.”

Not your fault,” says Frederick, filled with anger at Juneau’s assailant. “It was his fault. His crime. For which he should be punished.”

“Oh he’s been punished,” she says, nodding. “And of course he’d been punished before he ever did that to me. People don’t hurt other people like that unless they’ve been hurt like that, too.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s dead. Died when Kyle was four. Crashed his car going a hundred miles an hour. We were divorced by then and I never really knew him, so when he died it was…it didn’t mean much to me except I wouldn’t ever see him around town again.”

“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” says Frederick, putting his hand on his heart. “I’m sure your insights about him are correct, but still…you didn’t deserve to suffer like that.”

A silence falls and their eyes meet, and she sees his sorrow and his innocence and his kindness, and he sees the same in her.

The fire flickers and Poobah snorts at something in a dream.

“You know,” says Frederick, gazing at the dwindling fire, “sometimes I’ll think of something Sri Bihar said in one of his talks, something that stuck in my mind because it seemed important at the time, though I didn’t really understand what he meant. And lately, just in these last few days, I’ll hear those words again and they make perfect sense.”

“Like what?” asks Juneau, feeling closer to him than she’s ever felt to any man except her grandfather. “I thought you said he was a fake.”

“He is a fake,” says Frederick, laughing at the absurdity of a chubby middle-aged Jewish guy from Brooklyn pretending to be a Buddhist sage and convincing thousands of people to give him lots of money to support his charade. “But he helped me. He gave me refuge and work and got me through a difficult time.”

“Like what did he say that you understand now?” she asks, frightened and excited to feel so aroused by him.

Frederick gets up from his armchair and puts another log on the fire, and another, and another. Now he turns to Juneau and says, “Only when we cease to be afraid, do we experience the mundane as miraculous. And only when we experience the mundane as miraculous, do we cease to be afraid.”

“What does that mean to you?” she asks, inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. “That you didn’t understand before?”

“It means if I am fully involved while weeding the chard, I am involved in a miracle, and being so involved, I am no longer afraid. When I feed the pigs and scratch their backs and they smile in their sublimely innocent way, I am involved in a miracle and I am no longer afraid.”

“What were you afraid of?” she asks, loving the sound of his voice.

“Of making a mistake,” he says, smiling sadly. “Of making someone angry. Of losing what I thought I had. Of dying before I was ready to die.”

“Are you afraid of me?” she asks, getting up and going to him. “Afraid of making a mistake by staying or leaving? Afraid of making me angry? Of losing me? Of dying before you get to England?”

“Yes,” he says, taking her hand. “I’m afraid of all those things when I forget I am involved in the miracle of standing with you by a fire in a house on the high plains of Colorado under a three-quarters moon, winter soon to follow the brief and glorious flurry of fall.”

“I’m afraid to love you,” she says, relieved to have said so. “Afraid you won’t love me in the same way.”

“What way is that?” he asks, smiling shyly.

“Tenderly,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Wanting me to be happy so I’ll want to make you happy.”

“You have a lovely way with words, Juneau,” he says, kissing her lips.

“So do you, Freddie,” she says, returning his kiss. “And you still haven’t asked me how old I am.”

“How old are you?” he asks, transfixed by the sudden revelation of her beauty.

“Forty-seven,” she says, leading him away from the fire and down the hall to her bedroom. “Going on twenty-five.”

fin

Old Perry

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

Forty years ago, I wrote a short story called Old Perry. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, made a valiant effort to sell the story to various magazines, and three interested editors could not convince three disinterested publishers to run the story, so the fable was never published. A few years later, I showed the story to Richard Marks and he thought Old Perry would make a fine movie.

Richard was, and still is, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. I first met Richard those same forty years ago when he was working at the late great Ziegler, Diskant, and Roth Agency, an agency specializing in representing novels to the movie industry. Following the demise of that agency, Richard and I remained friends and he endeavored to interest a movie producer or two in Old Perry, to no avail.

Somewhere along the winding path of my life, I lost track of Richard and also lost my few copies of Old Perry, and until a few weeks ago I never thought I would see that story again. Every once in a while something would remind me of Old Perry—the running of the Kentucky Derby or a visit with a friend’s horse—but I remembered little more than the gist of the tale.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was in need of a little advice from an entertainment lawyer. Richard is the only entertainment lawyer who has ever befriended me, so I looked him up via Google, sent him an email, and we restarted our friendship after thirty-some years. He inquired about Old Perry and I told him I lost the story long ago. Then a few weeks ago, Richard wrote to say he found a copy of the story while cleaning out his garage. He scanned the story and sent me a copy of the scan and I had the fascinating experience of reading a story I penned forty years ago—fascinating because I can’t imagine present-day Todd writing such a story, yet I enjoyed the energy and spirit of the tale.

Here for your reading pleasure is Old Perry.

Old Perry

It hurt me because he was too good for that and I always said we could make more money if we just let him win his races, but Jackie said he was too good not to use him as our bread and butter horse and he also said Old Perry didn’t mind losing. But I never believed that, or that Jackie believed it.

Okay, now what a bread-and-butter horse was to Jackie was a horse that could win almost all the time in low stakes races, but you didn’t let him win. You held him back in five or six races in a row, or maybe even ten races if your other horses were makin’ money, and you built up the odds against that horse until he was a real long shot, say twenty-five to one, and then you’d bet four or five hundred on him, win, and there was your money for keeping seven horses in good shape for a couple months anyway.

Course you had four or five people bet a hundred each so the big take wasn’t so obvious, and you had to move your horse around to different tracks all the time, which we did anyway, and you had to talk down his workouts if they were too good, and maybe once in a while you let him Place in a couple races or Show a couple times, so people didn’t get suspicious, when actually Old Perry could have won every race he ran at those second-rate tracks, and I always thought he could win at the best tracks, but Jackie said he couldn’t and was just a damn good bill payer.

But it still hurt me. I couldn’t ever look Old Perry in the eye after a race, even if he won, because I’d ridden him some mornings when he felt so strong and smooth and powerful and came in way under his fastest official time, close to the track record, and I would tell Jackie, though I didn’t have to because he was there most of the time watching it happen. But he would say, “No, we can’t ever let him race like that or we’ll be in big trouble.”

And that’s also why Jackie named him Old Perry (he’s only three now) because when people saw that Old they backed off, because old means slow, right? Most people are so damn stupid and superstitious, including horse people, you can scare’em off easy. They don’t take the time to really look at a horse. If they’d ever really looked at Old Perry they would have seen he was good, because sometimes people who really knew horses would watch him work and say to me, “Man, that’s some animal. Wonder why he doesn’t win? No guts, huh?” Which would hurt me.

But Jackie had a point because you had to have a really good horse, a winner, if you were gonna put down a big chunk of cash so you could keep your operation going. And Old Perry was perfect for that. He’s a real big horse and bettors don’t like real big horses in low stakes races. They like peppy little horses that come out snorting. And Old Perry walks with his head hung low, which bettors hate. And he always had a geek for a jockey because Jackie wouldn’t put anybody good on him or word would have spread fast how good he really was.

He ran thirty-two races as a two-year-old, which was crazy for an animal that fine, but he did, and we bet him to win in seven races and he won all of’em easy. I know because I was that geek jockey and I was holding him back even when he won.

But it got to hurt me so much I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I’d keep Floss up late, talking to her, whining actually, and she’d try to calm me down by making love to me, but I couldn’t even do that after a while because Old Perry and Jackie were screwing me up so bad.

So I decided to let him go in his first three-year-old race, even though Jackie told me to hold him. That was in May at Golden Gate fields, last race of the day. I’ll never forget that race. Triple Jump, a big black monster from New Zealand was the heavy favorite and Jackie thought this would be a good race to bring Old Perry in second and maybe we’d win a little cash that way without wrecking the long-shot buildup. But I told Floss to bet a hundred on Old Perry to Win since I knew Jackie was betting a hundred on him to Place and the damn odds were thirty to one before the race and jumped to forty-five to one at post time because nobody there had seen him run, so nobody bet on him at all.

I swear to God I just let him do whatever he wanted. Didn’t whip him, didn’t push him, but I didn’t hold him back and he won by twenty-five lengths and came within a half-second of breaking the track record, which we coulda massacred if I’d even touched him a little.

Naturally Jackie was pissed. He was pissed when he got the purse check for five thousand and even more pissed when I gave him four thousand more and he was really pissed when the reporters came around and asked him how it felt to have a turkey like Old Perry win at forty-five to one odds. He tried, oh God he tried to smile for them, but he couldn’t, and if he’d killed me that night I would have been surprised.

Next day he calls me in and says, “Listen you little shit, if you ever do that again I’m gonna kick your butt so hard you’ll never sit on a horse again.” Then he scrunched up his ugly face like he does so you don’t know if he’s in pain or just pissed and says, “Jimmy, I wish I could make you understand about that horse. He’s gonna keep us in chips for a long time, and we can’t screw that up. He can’t ever make us rich, but he can keep us going.” Then he stalked around the stall (his office was always a stall he fixed up) and he says, “Cause if he wins too much down here, I gotta move him up, right? If I move him up, I gotta pay more to enter him, keep him, insure him, everything…and he ain’t gonna win up there. He’s a good horse, Jimmy, but he’s not a great horse, and we can’t take any chances because I might never find such a sure thing again in my life.”

And that’s when I saw for the first time that Jackie actually thought Old Perry might be a great horse, but he was afraid to admit it because he was scared shitless of winning big. Which is true of lots of little time trainers. And Jackie was definitely in the little time habit. He was a sweet guy, but he just never saw himself as quite good enough for anything. That’s why he got divorced three times, because his women got sick of him not liking himself. That was pretty obvious.

And so here was this horse that was really something, that Jackie and I had made into whatever he was, that even a two-bit, too tall, scaredy-cat jock like me could win with, and Jackie didn’t have the balls to try with him.

So I said it wouldn’t happen again and then I went out and ran a couple of our nags and tried to figure out how I was gonna convince Jackie to let that horse really run. And then as I was going by Witherspoon’s fancy pants part of the facility, I realized maybe Jackie was right. You get a champion or a near champion and you’re suddenly talkin’ huge operating fees. Which I knew we could win by betting on Old Perry, except it’s crazy to bet much on your own horses. Nobody stays in business for long betting heavy on their own horses. I mean you bet a little, naturally, because that’s what it’s all about in a way, but you’re not supposed to bet big, whatever big means to you, except we were betting our own horses, Old Perry in particular, which is why, I guess, we were considered scum by the class trainers. They looked down on us so much they didn’t even think about trying to buy Old Perry, either outright or in a claiming race.

So then I figured, who cares, I’d let him win again the next race and see what Jackie did then. Except two days later, Jackie told me he wanted me to win, that he’d entered Old Perry in a big purse race and we were gonna load the windows, too.

I was high as a kite for the rest of the week, and the night before the race I took Floss out to dinner and to a show and the next morning early I went to see my horse, to work him light before the race that evening, and he was sick. I checked him over and could see he’d been doped, and I just wanted to kill Jackie.

But I didn’t say anything because we still had thirteen hours until the race, so I got Floss to stay with him so Jackie couldn’t give him anything else, and I got Pike over. Pike wouldn’t tell on a doped horse but sure knew how to undope a horse if anybody could. He gave Old Perry something to make him piss extra and something else that made him shit extra, and then I gave him a long walk and chanced a little more water than usual, and by race time he wasn’t perfect but he was okay, pissing steadily, all the way out into the paddock.

And Jackie was there acting like nothing had happened. I tried to ignore him while he saddled Old Perry, but I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to be there. He was whistling, making wisecracks, pretending not to see the horse wasn’t lookin’ so good. I coulda killed him.

Then I got on and we got out on the track and I wondered if we’d cleaned out most of the dope. And then I thought to myself What kind of a man would poison his own horse just to keep a dumb jock from letting him win? I mean I knew I was important to Jackie. I’d been with him for six years. He liked me and he needed me because I was a jockey/trainer/stable boy/everything sorta guy, and me and Floss were just about all the family he had. But still, what was he trying to prove? That he was boss? Was he trying to put me down so I wouldn’t buck him anymore? He must have known I knew he’d doped my horse. I couldn’t figure him out.

But anyway, there we were out on the track, and I was thinking as I headed Old Perry down to the starting gate, Holy shit, I’m in a serious horse race. It hadn’t even occurred to me how big a race this was. I hadn’t ever ridden against horses like those. Blue Light, Queen’s Four, Cat’s Eye. A damn fast field. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been out there at all because I was a hack. I knew horses and I could feel their moods, but my body was all wrong and I couldn’t move with the horse the way the real artists do, the real pros.

And then I had to swallow to keep from crying, thinking about how if Old Perry hadn’t been doped I mighta had a chance against those bastards. Might, but now I didn’t because he’d been doped, and I hated Jackie and cursed him and cursed his rotten soul that he would do that to a good animal like Old Perry and to me and to Floss. I hated him and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do well, how much I wanted Old Perry to run a proud race and not to fall. Please God, I prayed, don’t let my horse fall, and for a minute I thought about pulling him out of the race, because I’d seen horses fall and later on found out they’d been doped.

So I did something I’d never done before and something that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a good reason for doing it. I reined him in and got off out there on the backstretch and I looked him over. I looked him in the eyes and in the mouth and patted him and checked for shivers or anything that might have told me he was too sick to run. But he looked okay. He usually looked great, but at least he looked okay and I knew he wouldn’t fall.

And even though he hesitated a little as we came into the gate, something he’d never done before, I knew he’d make a good run, maybe not a great run, but he’d get around okay and then I’d go into Jackie’s office and I’d say, “Go to hell you rotten bastard. Go to hell and goodbye.” Because Floss and I could get work somewhere else, and I might even report him and try to get Old Perry taken away from him so the horse would have the chance to be the horse I thought he might be.

But then for the few seconds before the race I tried to clear my brain of all my bad thoughts. That’s something Floss and I learned from this book on meditation. I got really calm and relaxed and I looked up at the stands full of people and colors and looked down the row at the other jocks, all so flashy and colorful, and I looked for beauty, like the book said to, and I saw it everywhere, and then I looked down at Old Perry, at his beautiful brown skin, and I patted him and squeezed him with my legs and felt the miracle of life rush through me, and then the bell sounded and we flew out of the gate and we didn’t touch ground for a long time.

The whole first half of the race was like that—floating, flying, and I felt stoned, like all the energy of the lights shining down was being concentrated into me and into Old Perry and the race seemed like a fantastic dream, at least the first half of it.

But then I came out of the dream and saw where I was, a tight third, right on Cat’s Eye’s tail, and Lobato was holding the Cat back a length behind Blue Light, just waiting for the home stretch to take it. And I could feel Old Perry working, struggling to get into his rhythm, but not really being able to because he just didn’t feel fine to himself. Which is when I got mad again, thinking how we hadn’t let this horse be himself, and I wasn’t allowed to be myself and Floss wasn’t herself and Jackie wasn’t himself and almost nobody was themselves because we’re all playing these shitty games to win, to pay bills, to not be ourselves because for some stupid reason we’re afraid. And I got so mad, I just went crazy and laid the crop on harder than I ever have and I could feel Old Perry brace against the blows because he didn’t like that, didn’t ever need it, but I needed it and I couldn’t hit myself, not then anyway.

But then we started to move and we seemed to lock into Cat’s Eye’s pace as we slid by Blue Light together, like a matched pair, and it wasn’t like we were trading the lead, we were sharing it, moving step for step perfectly down the run and I didn’t whip Old Perry anymore because I could feel he was locked into that other horse and all we had to do was run that last two hundred yards—no, not run, fly, because we were flying and it was like a dream again and I didn’t even feel it when we touched down. So I guess I didn’t really have to, but right at the end I touched him a little and he moved ahead by a length at the wire, just so there wouldn’t be any question.

And as I stood up in the stirrups as we slowed on the turn, I thought Holy shit, we won. Old Perry and I won. And all the bastards in the world couldn’t undo that.

But you want to talk about a surprise. When I rode Old Perry into that winner’s circle and Jackie was there crying his eyes out and hugged that horse and looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, we did it! You were right!” I about fell off. Because he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t bullshitting. He didn’t know about the dope.

Later on we put it together that somebody from one of the class acts must have doped Old Perry so we’d yank him. It figured because since he almost broke the track record a few days before, they knew he had a chance to win and that must have screwed up somebody’s big plans.

So I worried for a while they’d try to poison him, and me and Floss slept down there with Old Perry for a few weeks after. But we stopped doing that after a while, after he won three more races. And he hasn’t lost since. He’s too well known now for somebody to poison him.

Sure sometimes I wish I was racing him still, but I know if he’s gonna be as great as he can be then we’ve got to have a great jock riding him. I still run him in the morning and walk him and groom him and talk to him, cause he likes me and I can look him right in the eye now and say, “We really are what we are Old Perry. We might lose tomorrow, but not on purpose.”

Monsieur Russell

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Mark & Todd  Yosemite c 1961

Todd and Mark circa 1961 photo courtesy of Mark Russell

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

My friend Mark Russell recently sent me a photograph taken fifty-four years ago at a pullout on the Tioga Road halfway between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—a spectacular shot of the Sierras, the deep blue sky awash in billowy white and gray clouds, Lake Tenaya shining in the distance.

Mark is thirteen in the picture, I am twelve, and we are on our way with our fathers to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake, there to fish for trout and commune with the nature spirits. In this picture, I am a few inches taller than Mark and we are both skinny boys on the cusp of becoming young men.

Two years later, Mark and his family moved away and I would not see him again for twelve years. I had gone to New York to meet my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman in-person for the first time, and to lunch with the three magazine editors—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Gallery—Dorothy had convinced to buy one or more of my short stories. I was funding my excursion with money earned from landscaping a freeway overpass in Medford, Oregon, and on a whim, I called Mark’s parents in Connecticut, they gave me Mark’s phone number in South Carolina, and I called him to see if I might come for a visit.

I had no idea what Mark had been up to since I last saw him, but I remembered him as funny, friendly, extremely creative, and adventurous, and I wanted to see him again. In junior high school, we played baseball and football and basketball together, and he helped me live through the tedious classroom hours by passing me brief little stories he’d written about naughty children doing silly and gross things, and I would nearly bust a gut trying to contain my laughter until class ended. Thus I thought of him as a fellow writer, which was what I aspired to be.

A woman with a strong southern accent answered the phone, I told her I was an old friend of Mark’s, Todd Walton, and she went to fetch him. A moment later, Mark came on the line, his voice an octave lower than when I had last heard him speak. “Todd Walton. I was just thinking about you.”

A couple weeks later, I detrained in Camden, South Carolina late at night and was met at the station by Mark and his beautiful wife Carrie, Mark sporting a dark brown beard and towering over me. He had married into a family of folks who raised horses, and he and his wife lived with his wife’s sister and mother on two thousand acres of woods and meadows and swamps. Mark had become a maker of fine wood furniture, and I ended up staying with him and his wonderful family for a few glorious weeks in November before I headed back to California.

The climax of my visit was attending The Colonial Cup, a famous steeplechase, where I ended up betting on the winner, a spectacular horse named Grand Canyon, and I won a couple hundred dollars. I might have stayed with Mark and his family longer, but my mother called on Thanksgiving and asked me to fly to Palm Springs to take care of my grandparents who were reeling from the suicide of their son, my Uncle Howard.

Thereafter, I heard little from Mark for several years, though I did get a letter from him saying he and his wife were now members of a Buddhist community in which the renowned teacher Pema Chödrön was a leading light. When the Canadian government granted permission for Pema and members of her community to immigrate to Nova Scotia, Mark and his wife moved there.

I’m not sure if Mark and Carrie had their two daughters before they moved to Canada or shortly thereafter, but two daughters they had, and now Mark is a grandfather. He also has a successful garlic and squash and kale farm called Garlic Mountain, lives in the second home he built since moving to Nova Scotia, raises fine horses with his wife, plays the banjo, and has built a number of spectacular wooden boats.

I know these things about Mark from a handful of letters and emails and photographs he has sent me over the years, and when Mark recently sent the picture of us when we were boys becoming men in the California Sierras in 1962, I fell into musing about why he was so important to me and why I have endeavored to stay in touch with him over all these many years despite the great distance between us.

Mark liked me and I liked him. He would come over for supper and to spend the night, and we would camp out under the old olive trees behind my parent’s house, build a fire, and talk about life and the myriad unsolvable mysteries. We went on long bicycle rides together, pushing the boundaries of our known worlds. Mark got me started collecting coins: pennies, nickels, and dimes, and I became fascinated with the history of money, which led me to reading about the history of everything else.

His parents were always kind to me and honored me for being who I was, and they laughed at the funny stories I told, whereas my own parents were routinely disapproving of me and disappointed I wasn’t more studious and academically ambitious.

Mark was an avid Dodgers fan, I a diehard Giants fan, yet our passion for baseball, our interest in the details of the game, was a bond. Mark loved Sandy Koufax, I loved Juan Marichal.

But transcendent of everything, I think, was that we found each other interesting and funny and thoughtful, and when one is eleven and twelve and thirteen, such a bond is golden. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years, but I have no doubt should we ever meet in the flesh again, we will have no end of things to talk and laugh about.